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Skyddsrummet Luxgatan review

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Issue number: 2016:1

Book cover

Skyddsrummet Luxgatan

(The Lux Street Bunker)

by Jerker Virdborg
reviewed by Sarah Death

Virdborg returns here to dystopian territory familiar from many of his previous works: a nation on some unspecified war footing; military authority, sinister enemies and crazed insurgents battling it out across the land while nervous civilians try to carry on with life. Most of the action takes place in the capital or in the southerly province of Småland, where there seems to be a front line; there are also rumours of fighting ‘up north’. We are in a Sweden where the parliament building is under demolition, government agencies are confiscating private citizens’ possessions and church silverware, and a precision bombing raid targets graveyards.

These fifteen stories are described as ‘adapted’, perhaps signalling that they are to be read as constituent parts of a whole. Individual stories are interspersed with the title narrative, delivered in short episodes by a man who has joined countless other citizens in the air-raid shelter on Luxgatan, an actual Stockholm street. Virdborg shows with visceral clarity how we might react to hours shut up during a power cut in a subterranean shelter with hundreds of others, trying not to panic as bombs explode above.

The narrator’s name turns out to be Kristian and lux, one then recalls, means ‘light’ in Latin; thoughts inevitably turn to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Virdborg’s whole book can be read as a descent into hell, and the framework narrative more specifically so. In his fumbling progress round the vast, crowded shelter, Kristian encounters sloughs of despond and the shadow of death as well as most of the seven deadly sins. The searing light at the end of the story underlines the parallel.

By comparison with Virdborg’s earlier works, characters in this collection seem more rounded, with more developed histories. Many of their recollections are nostalgic, even pastorally idyllic, as in the case of the soldier in ‘Dawn Light, Misteröd’, who remembers boyhood haymaking with his grandfather. It is a rather male-dominated fictional universe. A number of stories feature cars and planes plunging headlong, out of control. The most bizarre of these is ‘Sunday Out at the Old Kallax Airbase’, in which a gang of boys happens across a series of kamikaze-like plane crashes, apparently staged for a picnicking audience. There are other surreal elements: a father kills a snake and his daughter instantly vanishes; a town gets further away the faster a car speeds towards it. Yet we also find human images that could be from today’s news: the people smugglers paid to guide groups of desperate individuals through treacherous marshland across a border; the blank-eyed child sitting with his rucksack of toys, unresponsive to helpers because he has witnessed too much horror.

The contempt of this dystopian society for its citizens is nowhere better evoked than in ‘Something We Have to Do for Mum’, in which a brother and sister risk radioactive contamination in the ‘restricted zone’ to rescue a cherished sewing box for their dying mother. Subsequent events trigger further rashness on the brother’s part. This act of a man realising he has been duped is one of surprisingly few gestures of defiance from the populace in Virdborg’s profoundly unsettling book. Recent atrocities in Paris have forcefully reminded us how sickening it is when war and indiscriminate killing violate familiar places, and security concerns haunt everyday lives. In the light of this, The Lux Street Bunker feels all the more chilling and prescient. Perhaps most shocking of all is how readily the vast mass of people in these stories are prepared to adapt (that word again) to life under such a regime.

Jerker Virdborg. Photograph: Tobias Regell
About the book

Skyddsrummet Luxgatan

Albert Bonniers förlag, 2015. 250 pages.